Coming of Age series: The Outsiders

In the fifth of our ‘Coming of Age’ series, Annette Ong reviews S E Hinton’s 1967  novel ‘The Outsiders’. 

“It wasn’t fair for the Socs to have everything. We were as good as they were; it wasn’t our fault. I couldn’t take it or leave it… I felt the tension growing inside of me and I knew something had to happen or I would explode.”

Ponyboy, Sodapop, Dally, Two-Bit ­– with character names like these you know you’re in for a wild ride. The Outsiders delivers on every front. It’s hard to believe S.E. Hinton wrote this when just fifteen years old. Largely autobiographical (although published as fiction), the books is about Hinton’s experience of high school. Her inspiration came when a friend was beaten up by a group of rich kids while walking home, simply because he was a “Greaser.”

Set in the 1950’s, the novel deals with suburban social inequality; focusing on the escalating tension, anxiety and violence between the two distinct social sets. A clear line is drawn between the “Greasers” (East Side kids: poor, underprivileged and well known to the police for petty crime and getting in fights) and the “Socs” (short term for the “Social Set”: rich West Side kids – troublesome too, but mud doesn’t seem to stick to these kids. Their parents’ bank accounts offer full immunity.

This coming-of-age story is told through Ponyboy Curtis’s eyes. Ponyboy lives with his older brothers, Sodapop and Darry. Their parents died in a car accident, leaving Darry as their guardian. The boys are poor and work hard. They are Greasers and with their close friends, Two Bit, Johnny, Steve and Dally, get up to all kinds of trouble. One night, things go horribly wrong and Ponyboy leaves town with Johnny, the police hot on their trail. In an instant, Ponyboy is faced with a life or death situation that has him questioning the world he lives in.

Ponyboy is not your typical Greaser. He has a higher than average IQ and skipped a grade at school. A reader, he is sensitive and introverted at times. Not a hood, like the Socs believe he is (I don’t know many hoods who can recite Robert Frost from memory, do you?). The story is a great lesson in never judging a book by its cover. It’s wonderfully balanced, as Hinton gives us insight into the Socs world as well; showing the reader that nothing is as flawless as it first appears.

The significance of this novel has strengthened since its first publication. It appears on recommended high school reading lists due to the undeniable truth at its core. Readers have gone so far as to write to Hinton and tell her “this book changed my life” – which is the biggest compliment a writer could ever hope to receive. The book’s success ensured it made it to the silver screen. Directed by Francis Ford Coppola, it starred Rob Lowe, Matt Dillon, C.Thomas Howell, Emilio Estevez, Tom Cruise, Patrick Swayze and Ralph Macchio.

Hinton writes without pomp or arrogance; she tells it like it is. There are no quick fixes, no “happily ever after” to the story, but there is hope. It is Ponyboy’s determination to live differently that has readers cheering him on all the way. As Ponyboy seeks out a better way to be, you can hear their collective refrain: “Stay gold, Ponyboy. Stay gold.”

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